johnmac's rants

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Victory For The Internet Conspiracy

(This column originally appeared in the Westchester Guardian of April 16, 2015 --

Creative Disruption
Creative Disruption is a continuing series examining the impact of constantly accelerating technology on the world around us. These changers normally happen under our personal radar until we find that the world as we knew it is no more.  

A Victory For The Internet Conspiracy
By John F. McMullen
On January 20th of this year, Indiana State Senator Scott Schneider introduced Senate Bill 568, the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”, an action that would set off a nationwide firestorm bringing national political figures and other states into the controversy, raise charges of an “Internet Conspiracy”, and have possible implications for the 2016 presidential election. It is my contention that twenty years ago, prior to the rise of social media, such national reaction to the actions of a midwestern state legislature would never have happened. The phrase “Internet Conspiracy”, used by Indiana Governor Republican Mike Pence as he tried to take on the role of beleaguered victim, is too strong but it was certainly the power of the Internet that turned the tide against the law and against Gov. Pence personally.

The law as written, according to the official state digest of the bill (, “Provides that a state or local government action may not substantially burden a person's right to the exercise of religion unless it is demonstrated that applying the burden to the person's exercise of religion is: (1) essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and (2) the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest. Provides that a person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a state or local government action may assert the burden as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding, regardless of whether the state or a political subdivision of the state is a party to the judicial proceeding.”
Gay rights organization within the state immediately spoke out against the bill sating that it would allow business owners to state that they were religiously opposed to same sex marriage or homosexuality and refuse to serve the LGBT community. The protests of the organizations resounded through the public press and the Internet, causing Gov. Pence to speak out refuting the fears of the organizations, saying that many states throughout the country had similar bills and not had such an outcry. He first denied that such effects could or would take place and, then on the Sunday March 29th ABC talk show with George Stephanopolous, stated that “that people on the Internet had conspired to create a “misunderstanding” that a so-called “religious freedom” law was about denying services to LGBT people” ( The entire interview is interesting, if nothing else for Pence’s attempt to dodge Stephanopolous‘ questions (Ex: GS: “And so yes or no, if a florist in Indiana refuses to serve a gay couple at their wedding, is that legal now in Indiana? Yes or no? MP: “This is where this debate has gone, with misinformation. There’s been shameless rhetoric about my state and about this law and about its intention all over the Internet. People are trying to make it about one particular issue. And now you’re doing that, as well.
While Pence was defending the law, businesses and organizations from across the country were attacking the law – Salesforce was going to hold up on expansion in the state; an AFL / CIO union was pulling its national convention from the state; a group of high-tech officials, led by Apple’s Tim Cook, a public homosexual himself, has written op-ed pieces and letters attacking the law; sports organizations, such as the NCAA and NASCAR, and sports commentators, such as Charles Barkley, has issued strong statements attacking the law with some suggesting that the NCAA should move the “Final Four” from Indianapolis.

The governors of Connecticut, Washington, and New York put travel bans on state employees traveling to Indiana on State funds, the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, Greg Ballard, broke with a member of his own party and took exception to the bill calling for a local bill protecting gays, and the Republican governor of Tennessee refused to sign a similar bill and, instead, sent it back to the legislature for re-working. Additionally, the Huffington Post ( and the Atlantic ( both wrote that Pence was wrong in stating that the Indiana law was “no different that federal and other state laws” as those laws only applied as defenses against suits by government agencies, not by individuals. Garrett Epps wrote in the Atlantic “The problem with this statement is that, well, it’s false. That becomes clear when you read and compare those tedious state statutes.  If you do that, you will find that the Indiana statute has two features the federal RFRA—and most state RFRAs—do not. First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” The federal RFRA doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state RFRAs except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their RFRAs.

Pence did receive some support from Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz but the overwhelming reaction to the law was negative and Pence asked the legislature to mend the law to eliminate the “misinformation”. The legislature added the following “This chapter does not: (1) authorize a provider to refuse to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or United States military services; (2) establish a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecution for refusal by a provider to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military Service." which the governor then signed (and the governors of Connecticut, Washington, and New York then called off the travel bans).

So the “Internet Conspirators” won! Although it is possible that there would have been a similar reaction if it were not for the activities on the Internet, there certainly would not have the speed of the reaction – Facebook and Twitter were Gov. Pence and the Law 24/7. Additionally, the longer that the issue played out, the less likely the outcome. We, as a nation have a short memory span and, as momentum slows, so does the likelihood of success.

For those who were anti-the law, the outcome was good --- but does this mean that instant access to events is always productive? One only has to remember the 2010 announcement that the Rev. Terry Jones planned to burn Korans in Florida to commemorate 9/11 and the resultant attacks on US embassies in Indonesia and Africa. It is easy to point out that uneducated protestors assumed that, if an American did such a thing, it must have the support of the US government and all Americans (because, in their country, such “permission” would be required) but that is neither here nor there. The point is that, unlike twenty years, in our hyper-connected world, actions can have immediate reactions, good and badanother disruption that we must understand and live with!

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John F. McMullen is a writer, poet, college professor and radio host. Links to other writings, Podcasts, & Radio Broadcasts at, and his books are available on Amazon.
© 2015 John F. McMullen  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Kenneth Cukier: Big data is better data (Ted Talk --- June 2014; Berlin)

(This talk is placed here as a resource for my students but it is worthy of attention by everyone)

Kenneth Cukier: Big data is better data

Filmed June 2014 at TEDSalon Berlin 2014

Video & Transcript --


0:11America's favorite pie is?
0:15Audience: Apple. 
Kenneth Cukier: Apple. Of course it is. How do we know it? Because of data. You look at supermarket sales. You look at supermarket sales of 30-centimeter pies that are frozen, and apple wins, no contest. The majority of the sales are apple. But then supermarkets started selling smaller, 11-centimeter pies, and suddenly, apple fell to fourth or fifth place. Why? What happened? Okay, think about it. When you buy a 30-centimeter pie, the whole family has to agree, and apple is everyone's second favorite. (Laughter) But when you buy an individual 11-centimeter pie, you can buy the one that you want. You can get your first choice. You have more data. You can see something that you couldn't see when you only had smaller amounts of it.
1:24Now, the point here is that more data doesn't just let us see more, more of the same thing we were looking at. More data allows us to see new. It allows us to see better. It allows us to see different. In this case, it allows us to see what America's favorite pie is: not apple.
1:49Now, you probably all have heard the term big data. In fact, you're probably sick of hearing the term big data. It is true that there is a lot of hype around the term, and that is very unfortunate, because big data is an extremely important tool by which society is going to advance. In the past, we used to look at small data and think about what it would mean to try to understand the world, and now we have a lot more of it, more than we ever could before. What we find is that when we have a large body of data, we can fundamentally do things that we couldn't do when we only had smaller amounts. Big data is important, and big data is new, and when you think about it, the only way this planet is going to deal with its global challenges — to feed people, supply them with medical care, supply them with energy, electricity, and to make sure they're not burnt to a crisp because of global warming — is because of the effective use of data.
2:50So what is new about big data? What is the big deal? Well, to answer that question, let's think aboutwhat information looked like, physically looked like in the past. In 1908, on the island of Crete,archaeologists discovered a clay disc. They dated it from 2000 B.C., so it's 4,000 years old. Now, there's inscriptions on this disc, but we actually don't know what it means. It's a complete mystery, but the point is that this is what information used to look like 4,000 years ago. This is how society stored and transmitted information.
3:30Now, society hasn't advanced all that much. We still store information on discs, but now we can store a lot more information, more than ever before. Searching it is easier. Copying it easier. Sharing it is easier. Processing it is easier. And what we can do is we can reuse this information for uses that we never even imagined when we first collected the data. In this respect, the data has gone from a stock to a flow, from something that is stationary and static to something that is fluid and dynamic. There is, if you will, a liquidity to information. The disc that was discovered off of Crete that's 4,000 years old, is heavy, it doesn't store a lot of information, and that information is unchangeable. By contrast, all of the files that Edward Snowden took from the National Security Agency in the United States fits on a memory stick the size of a fingernail, and it can be shared at the speed of light. More data. More.
4:50Now, one reason why we have so much data in the world today is we are collecting things that we've always collected information on, but another reason why is we're taking things that have always been informational but have never been rendered into a data format and we are putting it into data. Think, for example, the question of location. Take, for example, Martin Luther. If we wanted to know in the 1500swhere Martin Luther was, we would have to follow him at all times, maybe with a feathery quill and an inkwell, and record it, but now think about what it looks like today. You know that somewhere, probably in a telecommunications carrier's database, there is a spreadsheet or at least a database entry that records your information of where you've been at all times. If you have a cell phone, and that cell phone has GPS, but even if it doesn't have GPS, it can record your information. In this respect, location has been datafied.
5:47Now think, for example, of the issue of posture, the way that you are all sitting right now, the way that you sit, the way that you sit, the way that you sit. It's all different, and it's a function of your leg length and your back and the contours of your back, and if I were to put sensors, maybe 100 sensors into all of your chairs right now, I could create an index that's fairly unique to you, sort of like a fingerprint, but it's not your finger.
6:14So what could we do with this? Researchers in Tokyo are using it as a potential anti-theft device in cars.The idea is that the carjacker sits behind the wheel, tries to stream off, but the car recognizes that a non-approved driver is behind the wheel, and maybe the engine just stops, unless you type in a password into the dashboard to say, "Hey, I have authorization to drive." Great.
6:41What if every single car in Europe had this technology in it? What could we do then? Maybe, if we aggregated the data, maybe we could identify telltale signs that best predict that a car accident is going to take place in the next five seconds. And then what we will have datafied is driver fatigue, and the service would be when the car senses that the person slumps into that position, automatically knows, hey, set an internal alarm that would vibrate the steering wheel, honk inside to say, "Hey, wake up, pay more attention to the road." These are the sorts of things we can do when we datafy more aspects of our lives.
7:28So what is the value of big data? Well, think about it. You have more information. You can do things that you couldn't do before. One of the most impressive areas where this concept is taking place is in the area of machine learning. Machine learning is a branch of artificial intelligence, which itself is a branch of computer science. The general idea is that instead of instructing a computer what do do, we are going to simply throw data at the problem and tell the computer to figure it out for itself. And it will help you understand it by seeing its origins. In the 1950s, a computer scientist at IBM named Arthur Samuel liked to play checkers, so he wrote a computer program so he could play against the computer. He played. He won. He played. He won. He played. He won, because the computer only knew what a legal move was.Arthur Samuel knew something else. Arthur Samuel knew strategy. So he wrote a small sub-program alongside it operating in the background, and all it did was score the probability that a given board configuration would likely lead to a winning board versus a losing board after every move. He plays the computer. He wins. He plays the computer. He wins. He plays the computer. He wins. And then Arthur Samuel leaves the computer to play itself. It plays itself. It collects more data. It collects more data. It increases the accuracy of its prediction. And then Arthur Samuel goes back to the computer and he plays it, and he loses, and he plays it, and he loses, and he plays it, and he loses, and Arthur Samuel has created a machine that surpasses his ability in a task that he taught it.
9:29And this idea of machine learning is going everywhere. How do you think we have self-driving cars? Are we any better off as a society enshrining all the rules of the road into software? No. Memory is cheaper. No. Algorithms are faster. No. Processors are better. No. All of those things matter, but that's not why.It's because we changed the nature of the problem. We changed the nature of the problem from one in which we tried to overtly and explicitly explain to the computer how to drive to one in which we say,"Here's a lot of data around the vehicle. You figure it out. You figure it out that that is a traffic light, that that traffic light is red and not green, that that means that you need to stop and not go forward."
10:17Machine learning is at the basis of many of the things that we do online: search engines, Amazon's personalization algorithm, computer translation, voice recognition systems. Researchers recently have looked at the question of biopsies, cancerous biopsies, and they've asked the computer to identify by looking at the data and survival rates to determine whether cells are actually cancerous or not, and sure enough, when you throw the data at it, through a machine-learning algorithm, the machine was able to identify the 12 telltale signs that best predict that this biopsy of the breast cancer cells are indeed cancerous. The problem: The medical literature only knew nine of them. Three of the traits were ones that people didn't need to look for, but that the machine spotted.
11:23Now, there are dark sides to big data as well. It will improve our lives, but there are problems that we need to be conscious of, and the first one is the idea that we may be punished for predictions, that the police may use big data for their purposes, a little bit like "Minority Report." Now, it's a term called predictive policing, or algorithmic criminology, and the idea is that if we take a lot of data, for example where past crimes have been, we know where to send the patrols. That makes sense, but the problem, of course, is that it's not simply going to stop on location data, it's going to go down to the level of the individual. Why don't we use data about the person's high school transcript? Maybe we should use the fact that they're unemployed or not, their credit score, their web-surfing behavior, whether they're up late at night. Their Fitbit, when it's able to identify biochemistries, will show that they have aggressive thoughts. We may have algorithms that are likely to predict what we are about to do, and we may be held accountable before we've actually acted. Privacy was the central challenge in a small data era. In the big data age, the challenge will be safeguarding free will, moral choice, human volition, human agency.
12:53There is another problem: Big data is going to steal our jobs. Big data and algorithms are going to challenge white collar, professional knowledge work in the 21st century in the same way that factory automation and the assembly line challenged blue collar labor in the 20th century. Think about a lab technician who is looking through a microscope at a cancer biopsy and determining whether it's cancerous or not. The person went to university. The person buys property. He or she votes. He or she is a stakeholder in society. And that person's job, as well as an entire fleet of professionals like that person,is going to find that their jobs are radically changed or actually completely eliminated. Now, we like to think that technology creates jobs over a period of time after a short, temporary period of dislocation, and that is true for the frame of reference with which we all live, the Industrial Revolution, because that's precisely what happened. But we forget something in that analysis: There are some categories of jobs that simply get eliminated and never come back. The Industrial Revolution wasn't very good if you were a horse. So we're going to need to be careful and take big data and adjust it for our needs, our very human needs. We have to be the master of this technology, not its servant. We are just at the outset of the big data era, and honestly, we are not very good at handling all the data that we can now collect. It's not just a problem for the National Security Agency. Businesses collect lots of data, and they misuse it too, and we need to get better at this, and this will take time. It's a little bit like the challenge that was faced by primitive man and fire. This is a tool, but this is a tool that, unless we're careful, will burn us.
14:55Big data is going to transform how we live, how we work and how we think. It is going to help us manage our careers and lead lives of satisfaction and hope and happiness and health, but in the past, we've often looked at information technology and our eyes have only seen the T, the technology, the hardware,because that's what was physical. We now need to recast our gaze at the I, the information, which is less apparent, but in some ways a lot more important. Humanity can finally learn from the information that it can collect, as part of our timeless quest to understand the world and our place in it, and that's why big data is a big deal.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

It’s Not All Made-for-Television Fiction

(Originally published in the Westchester Guardian of April 9, 2015 -
It’s Not All Made-for-Television Fiction
By John F. McMullen
If you are all concerned about the “Internet of Things” (“IoT”) that pops up more and more in the media – and I think that you should be – you should be watching CBS’ relatively new FBI crime drama “CSI: Cyber” starring Academy Award winner Patricia Arquette (2014 Best Supporting Actress for “Boyhood).
A little background -- Last February, over a year ago, CBS announced plans for a spin-off from its long running “CSI” (“Crime Scene Investigation”) series to focus on Cyber Crime and, on April 30, 2014, the pilot for the new series ran as Episode 14 of the main series. The actual series began airing March 4, 2015 and its Season 1will run through May 6th of this year.
To the uninitiated, the first three episodes in the series may seem rather far-fetched; to those who follow technology closely, they ring all too true. The episodes, respectively, deal with “hacker” intrusions into home baby monitors, the controls of an amusement park roller coaster, and to computer printers (I put “hackers” in quotation marks because this term, originally used to mean those who push the envelope in computer development has evolved to be used for “computer criminal” and its use in this manner causes offense to many pioneers in technology development such as Steve Wozniak and Linus Torvalds. The terms that have come into vogue to separate the good guys from the bad guys are now “white hat hackers” and “black hat hackers).
A review of the devices “hacked” into by the perpetrators focuses attention on various items that are controlled by computer and are thus vulnerable to attack – and the only one of the three that we associate directly with computers is set afire remotely through Wi-Fi connections. In the IoT world, the large majority of household devices – televisions, coffee makers, blenders, security systems, garage doors, electric stoves, blenders, baby monitors, lights, heating & air conditioning systems, microwaves, and computer networks – are all controlled by computer chips and networked through WiFi systems connected to the Internet, making a whole household a prime target for computer criminals and terrorists.
The first concern is obviously security. Non-professional Internet users tend to have low tolerance for secure passwords – lengthy passwords (8 characters or greater) that contain upper-case and lower-case letters, numbers, and “special characters” ($, *, #, etc.) that are changed periodically. To be fair, it’s not only non-professionals; the rules for maintenance of secure passwords are annoying to everyone (I have the rules just mentioned for my account at Purchase College and it is a “real pain” to have to change the password regularly). There are sophisticated “password cracking programs” available to anyone on the “Dark Web” (the very secure hard to reach “seedy back alley of the Internet” --,2817,2476003,00.asp) so these annoying password requirements are actually our first line of defense against intruders.
The fourth episode of the series, “Fire Code,” which aired on March 25th, dealt with both WiFi vulnerability and the even more insidious exploitation of a “Zero Day” bug. While I had known for a good while that a Zero Day bug was a software error undetected at the time of the product’s release to the public, I hadn’t been aware of the extent of the possible risk to the public until I was preparing to interview the founder of the Justice Department Computer Crime Unit, Mark Rasch on the November 3, 2013 episode of the “Weekly johnmac Radio Show” ( When I went to see a recent television interview that Mark and ACLU representative Christopher Soghoian had with Washington Post reporter Nia-Malika Henderson on the subject of alleged FBI intrusion into the computers of subjects of investigations ("The FBI In Your Computer"--, I found that the FBI had engaged a number of free-lance hackers to scour recent releases of Microsoft, Apple, and Linux Operating Systems and web browsers searching for unknown bugs. Once such zero days were found, the hackers turned them over to the FBI which, rather than reporting them to the firms for correction, used the bugs to provide entry into the computers of suspected criminals and terrorists. The problem with this procedure is that, by not notifying the Microsofts, et al, the FBI was leaving all users of the particular software unprotected to invasion by identity thieves, Chinese hackers, or any other miscreants who might stumble onto the Zero Day.

A recent article in Wired Magazine, “US Used Zero-Day Exploits Before It Had Policies for Them” (, reveals that the use of Zero Days was an on-going government enterprise long before my exposure to the magnitude of it. 

According to the article and based on a document obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”) (after the civil liberties group sued the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for the information), “AROUND THE SAME time the US and Israel were already developing and unleashing Stuxnet on computers in Iran, using five zero-day exploits to get the digital weapon onto machines there, the government realized it needed a policy for how it should handle zero-day vulnerabilities.” The government then formed a task force to come up with guidelines in 2008 – five years before the mention of Zero Day bugs in the Washington Post interview.

The article reinforces the point made above about the risk to the general public that the non-reporting of these bugs to the software companies creates – “The government’s use of zero-day vulnerabilities is controversial, not least because when it withholds information about software vulnerabilities to exploit them in targeted systems, it leaves every other system that uses the same software also vulnerable to being hacked, including U.S. government computers and critical infrastructure systems.”

While stating that there had been a policy established in 2008 to review the bugs as found and determine which ones might be revealed for correction, the article casts doubt that there was much real follow-through on the policy. EFF’s Andrew Crocker is quoted as commenting on his agency’s review of the documents. “Based on the documents they’ve released and withheld there’s really not a lot of paper to back up [the government’s claims about] this being a rigorous process with lots of actual considerations in it. There just isn’t support for that in what they’ve released. It continues to raise questions about how thorough this process is and how much is there when the rubber meets the road.

The Fire Code episode of the CSI Cyber show provides a rather scary indication of what a zero day bug could do. Black hat hackers found a bug in the “firmware” (software on a chip) contained in a recently released computer printer. The bug left the chip prone to over heating and burning under certain conditions – if there was paper in the printer, a large fire could be started rapidly. In the episode, one person was killed in a resultant fire and the black hat (hacker name – JU5TU5 (Justice)) was in the process of blackmailing the government before he was caught.

Far-fetched? Not totally – what the episodes do show is that there must be stringent controls over software development with even penalties for the release of “buggy software” into the marketplace – there would be cries that such policies would inhibit software development but there must be some protection for the general public. With little protection, it gets much worse when the Internet of Things really kicks in – then we’d really need CSI: Cyber.

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John F. McMullen is a writer, poet, college professor and radio host. Links to other writings, Podcasts, & Radio Broadcasts at, and his books are available on Amazon.

© 2015 John F. McMullen  

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